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Historical clues to predicting AFL placements in 2020 (Part 1)

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Roar Guru
8th March, 2020
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Based solely on last year’s placements and 124 years of history, focusing especially on the last quarter-century of eight-team finals – the ‘modern finals’ era – we can make some tenuous and some ironclad predictions on how your favourite team will fare in the 2020 AFL campaign.

Eight-team finals began in 1994, so we have data from the 26 seasons up to last year that match the circumstances the Cats and their fellow teams will face this year. Additionally, there will be extrapolations we can make at times from data going further back into the century of VFL-AFL footy that came before that when the situation fits.

Here’s Part 1, covering last season’s top four teams.

1. Geelong Cats

Minor premiers: 16-6, 135.7 per cent

The outlook is very good for Geelong. Not great, but very good. Of teams that won the minor premiership in the modern finals era, 88.5 per cent (23 of 26) have returned to September to try and defend their crown.

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That’s the good news.

The bad news is that all three of the teams that did not return to finals the following years were teams that made a large jump to that first-place position just like Geelong did: from outside the previous season’s top three. What’s more, two of those were in the last four years: Adelaide (first in 2017, 12th in 2018) and Fremantle (first in 2015, 16th in 2016). The third team was Essendon back in 1994, who placed tenth following their turn at the top of the ladder.

Adelaide had jumped from fifth to first the previous year and the Dockers leapt from fourth in 2014. The Cats were eighth in 2018 before surprising most folks with their dominant first half and strong enough second half that won the minor premiership in 2019. Coincidentally, so was Essendon in the year before its championship season 26 years ago.

Another piece of potential bad karma coming into 2020 stems from their failure to win the premiership itself last September. Considering their 12 previous minor premierships, Geelong’s record following the five in which they also won the title shows three returns to the top of the ladder at the end of the next home-and-away season, or 60per cent.

However, in the seven seasons during which the minor premier did not end in raising the trophy, only once (14 per cent) did they successfully make it back to the top of the ladder, and that came in the middle of their most dominant era, the four straight minor premierships in the early 1950s. They were second on the ladder the season following the stellar 21-win 2008 and won the title in their last such situation, in 1993. However, in the next most recent similar situation they followed their 16-6 minor premier season with a 12-win season that placed them just outside the September action.

So, overall, Geelong’s history of defending in these circumstances is not all that great.

All other things being equal in 2020
Expect to see the Cats in finals but not necessarily in the top four. So, fifth place.

Tom Hawkins of the Cats celebrates kicking a goal

(Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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2. Brisbane Lions

16-6, 118.3 per cent

Second-place teams are generally also very good bets to return to finals, although the Lions will have the same handicap looming over them that Geelong does: while 20 of the last 26 second-placed teams have remained in the top eight, four of the six who failed were non-finalists either one or two years prior to their runner-up season.

Brisbane was famously 15th in 2018 before shocking the world with their 16-win season, coming within percentage points and/or a last-round loss to eventual champion Richmond from being the No. 1 seed in September.

The most recent team to fall from second to sidelines was Adelaide in 2013 (I’m not trying to pick on the Crows, I promise!), and they’d jumped from 14th to second before falling back to 11th. They then made finals three of the next four years. After Hawthorn’s improbable grand final victory over Geelong in 2008 from second place, they fell to 9-13 and ninth place before regaining their footing for a consecutive run of finals that ended only three years ago.

So even if the Lions were to fall from grace this season, that would hardly preclude them from returning for a long run of finals appearances as their young core of stars mature together.

Searching Brisbane’s own short history as the Lions, they concluded their celebrity run of three straight premierships – the run, incidentally, which first drew my own attention to this wonderful sport all the way around the globe here in western North America – with a loss to Port Adelaide in the 2004 grand final from their second-place finish. Then, with the exception of one sixth-place blip in 2009, they did not return to September action until last season. Let’s hope that doesn’t repeat with this crew.

All other things being equal in 2020
Hold your breath for this season, although the percentages favour them, but expect long-term success from this young core over the next several seasons. The odds are good that they’ll be in finals next year, but they’re outstanding bets to be there in 2021 and beyond.

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Zac Bailey.

(Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

3. Richmond Tigers

Premiers: 16-6, 113.7 per cent

Based on that third place alone Richmond has a great chance of returning to finals – slightly better than the team in second, oddly enough. But the five teams in this modern finals era who won the AFL title from third all made the top four the following year, although none of the five repeated as premiers: the Tigers themselves two years ago finished first (only to be upset by Mason Cox in the preliminary final), Hawthorn in 2015 finished third the next year, Brisbane concluded their trinity of titles from the third spot in 2003 with the second-place return to the grand final in 2004 (a loss to the Power), and both of Sydney’s 21st-century championships came from third place, and ironically both were followed with fourth-place finishes.

If you’re a Tiger-hater and you’re actively looking for evidence that supports your fervent desire to see Richmond return to its formerly traditional ninth-place position, there is this ray of hope for you to cling to. In the last 50 years there have been four occasions when three or more teams tied for the top of the ladder on wins and losses. Of course those ties were separated by percentage for finals seeding. Richmond was third last year, tied with Geelong and Brisbane with 16 wins and six losses. The other three such bronze medalists in three-ways were the 2016 Hawks, the 2014 Cats and the 1992 Magpies.

None of them made finals the next season. Hawthorn was 12th, Geelong tenth and Collingwood eighth when only six clubs made September. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.

All other things being equal in 2020
But on the evidence as well as our collective gut feelings about the strength of Damien Hardwick’s team coming into this season, with all other things being equal, write Richmond’s name in the double chance part of your finals bracket right now. In pen. But if none of those similar teams took first, expect these Tigers to be second going into September instead.

Richmond players with the 2019 premiership cup

(Ryan Pierse/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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4. Collingwood Magpies

15-7, 117.7 per cent

Collingwood fans are about to become my best friends.

Over the course of AFL-VFL history, teams who finished in this ‘relative’ position – meaning the position five slots above the finals cutline, which is currently ninth place – have a 79 per cent chance of making finals again the next year. That may not sound stupendous, but it’s higher than either of the slots above them. Richmond’s slot has a 76 per cent chance and Brisbane’s a 77 per cent chance to make finals, independent of all other factors.

Only three fourth-place finishers in the last quarter-century – the 2002 Kangaroos, the 2011 Bulldogs and last year’s Hawks – have failed to return to finals the following year.

And of the other 22, six of them ended the following season with the minor premiership in hand. Two championships also came from those fourth-place follow-ups: the 1998 Crows (see? Good news!) and the 2010 Collingwood Magpies, who won the first of back-to-back minor premierships and the last-ever replayed grand final over St Kilda from a fourth-place finish in 2009.

The one guarantee is that the Pies will not finish third or eighth this year, as no team in this position has done so the next year since Carlton hit third 35 years ago and North fell to eighth 40 years back. There have been six firsts, two seconds, two repeated fourths, three fifths, six sixths and three sevenths among those 22 possibilities.

All other things being equal in 2020
The most likely positions seem to be either first or sixth, so depending on whether you’re bullish or bearish about their chances, pick one or six.

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Read the second instalment of this series tomorrow, when we cover teams that finished fifth to eighth on the 2019 ladder.